WASHINGTON. Roelof Pik Botha, the last foreign minister under apartheid rule in South Africa will be layed to rest today. Botha, who served in the cabinet of Nelson Mandela, died in Pretoria on October 12 at the age of 86. Because of his penchant for dressing in a suit and tie as a young man, Botha acquired the nickname Pik a diminutive of the Afrikaans word for a penguin.
Pik’s death is personal to this writer. When Pik was serving as South Africa’s ambassador to Washington in the mid-1970s I was writing for a group of Afrikaans language newspapers. These publications were including Beeld in Johannesburg, Die Burger in Cape Town and the South African English-language newsweekly, To The Point.
Visiting South Africa, the opportunity to travel around the country and speak to men and women of all races, was part of the job. The apartheid system was all too reminiscent of segregation in the American South. A shameful period in our history that I remembered all too well. Like the Jim Crow South, there were signs everywhere proclaiming “white” and “non-white.”
Not only was there a racial hierarchy, white, colored, Indian, black, but only whites had the right to vote or hold office. The races were further divided by where they could live.
World attention turns toward apartheid
In the mid-1970s, the world was turning its attention toward the horrors of apartheid. Because of its racial policies, South Africa was expelled from the Olympic Games from 1964 to 1988. In 1974, South Africa was expelled from the U.N. General Assembly. Efforts were growing to politically and economically boycott the country. Speaking with Afrikaner friends, the descendants of the original Dutch settlers, which also included Germans and French Huguenots they often said:
“We are 5 million white people controlling a country with more than 20 million black people. We have the strongest military in Africa. With the Israelis, we are working on a nuclear possibility. We could stay in control indefinitely. To do so, however, we must become a totalitarian state. But we are Western Christian people who believe in freedom. We know that apartheid is immoral. If we keep this system, , our children will leave for Canada, America, and Australia. We agonize over how to abandon it, and become a genuinely open and free society.”
Fortunately, there were people like “Pik” Botha on hand.
As early as the 1970s, Botha had publicly admitted that apartheid was unjust and caused hardship. Yet he also defended the regime even as it became an international pariah. He first served in South Africa’s parliament as a member of the National Party, and was seen by many as a future prime minister. But his moderate views put him at odds with most of his party.
He became foreign minister in 1977, a year after the Soweto student uprising, in which police killed at least 176 protestors. International sanctions were tightened and the country became increasingly isolated.
In 1978, Botha was passed over in a bid for prime minister in favor of hard-liner PW Botha, to whom he is unrelated. By the mid-1980s, Pik Botha became the cabinet’s most vocal advocate of reform.
“I cannot understand,” Pik Botha said in 1987, while apartheid was still in place, “how you can stand in a lift with a black man with a toolbox in his hand, but when he puts on a suit, you want nothing to do with him.”
The release and ascension of Nelson Mandela
In the mid-1980s, Botha said that he could envision South Africa with a black president. He led the movement for the government to release Nelson Mandela, who, since 1962, is held as political prisoner. Botha was denounced by the right-wing. At rallies, there were shouts of, “Pik, you are digging the white grave.”
In 1989, P.W. Botha resigned as prime minister and was replaced by F.W. De Klerk, who later assumed the new office of president. Pik Botha stayed on as foreign minister during a transitional period in which the apartheid policies were dismantled. Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 and was elected president four years later.
Pik Botha, as Energy Minister, was a part of President Mandela’s cabinet.
In a 2013 BBC interview, Botha recalled Mandela’s resilient ability
“to have left prison after so many years without bitterness. I so often experienced his capacity to forgive and his will to improve the country…Historically, he played the role of a savior.”
In 1997, Botha was the first top official of the National Party to testify before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. During the hearings, led by Nobel Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, Botha asked for “God’s forgiveness” for failing to prevent the barbarity of the apartheid era.
South African President Cyril Ramaphisa, himself a prominent anti-apartheid leader, says Pik Botha:
“…would be remembered for his support for South Africa’s transition to democracy and for his service in the first democratic administration.”
Chester A. Crocker, a U.S. diplomat who worked on South Africa’s transition from apartheid, said of Botha:
“(Botha) was way ahead of his political base in the Afrikaner political establishment. He was an unforgettable, stunning performer.”
In the end, after years of defending the apartheid regime, Botha declared his support for the African National Congress in 2000:
“Afrikaners, whites should support the A.N.C. We cannot just continue voting for the opposition. I want to break with the racist attitudes of the past.”
Toward the end of his life, Botha paid tribute to the goal of racial coexistence:
“Of course, all of that (apartheid) had to change. It is not always that simple and easy to change, you know, mental attitudes, mindsets, but eventually, it did change. Black and white in this country need each other to succeed.”
South Africa has had a difficult history, and the Afrikaners were victims before they became victimizers. The Cape Of Good Hope was colonized by Dutch farmers (Boers) in the 17th century. The British occupied the Cape during the Napoleonic wars and took complete control after the Congress of Vienna. The Boers left, establishing two independent republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. There was peace between Britain and the Boer republics until the discovery of diamonds and gold.
The British Empire, with all its might, comes down upon the Boers
The Boer War lasted longer than the British imagined. It took them several years, 1900-02, to subdue the Dutch farmers, who launched a guerrilla war to defend their homes. The British opened internment camps for the wives and children of the Boers, the origin of the term “concentration camp.”
This is the first time that a whole nation had been systematically targeted and the first in which whole regions had been depopulated.
The British constructed 46 tented camps for the Boer internees and 64 for black Africans. Of the 28,000 Boer men are taken as prisoners of war, 25,630 were sent overseas. The majority of Boers remaining in the local camps were women and children. The overcrowding in the camps led to terrible conditions. There is bad sanitation and meager food rations leading to malnutrition and contagious diseases such as measles, typhus, and dysentery.
Over 26,000 Boer women and children were to perish in the British concentration camps.
In the British Parliament, the opposition leader, David Lloyd George, accused the government of “a policy of extermination.” Pik Botha’s ancestors fought the British in the Boer War and were victims of the aggressive designs of the British Empire. Some have called the Boer War the first anti-colonial uprising. Later, the Afrikaners would inflict the apartheid system upon black Africans.
Sadly, those who have been oppressed and mistreated, often do the same to others, if given a chance. But, in the end, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, the Afrikaners voluntarily gave up power.
A leader for change by changing
Pik Botha played an important role in moving South Africa to peacefully abandon apartheid. He was a complex figure who, for many years, did his best to defend the apartheid system. But he came to understand its fundamental immorality and played a role in ending it. Pik is one of those rare individuals who could admit that he spent much of his life pursuing mistaken goals. Then changing course in a positive direction.